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Slow and Steady

While other Hispanic politicos race ahead, Miguel del Valle takes one step at a time.



Miguel del Valle flunked first grade. "All year I thought I was doing OK," he says. "The teacher put me and a couple other kids who spoke Spanish in a corner and gave us table games to play with. She taught the rest of the class, and we had a good time. Then in June she called in me and my mother and explained that I had failed because I couldn't speak English. My heart stopped!"

That traumatic introduction to formal education occurred 34 years ago at a Catholic school in the Old Town neighborhood where Miguel lived with his parents and two brothers. But the shame and embarrassment still pain him deeply. That may help explain why education is so much on his mind--his own education and that of the community whose interests he represents as state senator from Illinois' fifth legislative district, which includes West Town, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square.

The first speech he ever gave on the senate floor, in 1986, was a ringing denunciation of a Republican-sponsored amendment to halt funds for bilingual education in public schools. And the first bill he sponsored required state universities and colleges to provide detailed, yearly reports on the programs they offered minorities, women, and the handicapped. A framed copy of that bill, autographed by senate colleagues, hangs on the wall of his legislative office in Humboldt Park.

That framed bill is just about the only concession to self-promotion in the tiny office, a storefront wedged between a closed-down butcher shop and a knickknack store on North Avenue. Little in the man himself suggests self-promotion either. He lives with his wife, Lupe, and four children, aged 3 to 20, on the second floor of an old white-stone two-flat on Division Street. His mother has the first floor and his mother-in-law the basement, which, he is quick to point out, is fully furnished and comfortable. He is cordial and frank in conversation, though often a bit tense. He listens carefully and answers questions thoughtfully, with only rare rhetorical flourishes. Del Valle is preoccupied with ideas and programs; when he discusses pet concepts, especially those dealing with Hispanic empowerment, his eyes flash and the words flow easily.

Both supporters and critics choose the same word to describe del Valle: consistent. "He's that rare bird who's committed to family and community," says Roberto Rivera, his former legislative aide. "When you talk about other subjects, you can see him quickly losing interest."

"In a world where public servants are expected to be looking out for their own interest, this man operates solely on principle," says political consultant Jacky Grimshaw. "Miguel is solid. He knows where he comes from, and the integrity just oozes out of him."

Even Joseph Berrios, the first Hispanic state representative in Illinois and a longtime political foe of del Valle, remarks on his consistency, though he adds that in the past that consistency, bordering on stubbornness, made del Valle unwilling to negotiate with white ethnic legislators. "You get more done by bending, cooperating," he says, "and I think he's learned that in the last year or so."

Twenty-sixth Ward Alderman Luis Gutierrez, who led a concerted effort to oust del Valle from his senate seat in the 1990 election, now lavishes praise on his former enemy. "He could be voted father of the year," he says, and laughs. "He's a caring, considerate man who will never support an issue just to get elected. I sure can't say that about every politician."

It's tempting to compare del Valle with Gutierrez: both are Puerto Rican, both graduates of Northeastern Illinois University, both independents lured into politics by Harold Washington, both elected for the first time in 1986, and both working hard for their goals. But the contrasts are more intriguing. Del Valle, a stocky man with a receding hairline and a big mustache, blends easily into a crowd; he is relatively unknown outside the Hispanic community. The short, thin Gutierrez possesses a kind of electricity that makes him a ready target for reporters and television cameras; he is one of Chicago's best-known and most easily recognized political leaders. And while del Valle is noted for his unbending allegiance to principle, the flamboyant, impulsive Gutierrez is regarded as a political maverick, a kind of Hispanic Ed Vrdolyak, who shifts alliances and relishes political compromises and trade-offs.

Perhaps Miguel del Valle is too much an idealist, too little a schemer to advance very far in the grimy world of politics. Some regard him as just the kind of highly principled coalition builder who, given the right set of circumstances, might bring together Chicago's Hispanics, white liberals, and even blacks in the sort of inspired unity that existed briefly in the mid-1980s; friends have urged him to run for the new Hispanic congressional district carved out of sections of the northwest and southwest sides. But while Gutierrez plunges ahead--he was expected to announce his candidacy shortly before this paper went to press--del Valle seems to be concentrating on more modest goals for the moment. He remembers how the regular Democratic organization amassed its heavy artillery against him in 1990 and very nearly seized his senate seat. "I was naive," he says. "I thought if I worked hard, kept in touch with the community and other elected officials, the bosses would respect me. I found out it doesn't necessarily work that way." Del Valle is up for re-election to the state senate in 1992, and he feels an obligation to retain his seat if he can. His education continues, he admits, and there's no point in trying to jump too far too soon. After all, you can't even get into second grade if you don't know the language well enough.

It's a sunny fall afternoon in Humboldt Park, but only a few children scamper around near the old boat house, whose walls are covered with gang symbols and unintelligible graffiti. Then from the west comes a block-long line of people waving white balloons and alternating chants of "No mas drogas in Humboldt Park!" and "No more gangs in the 31st!" They have marched from the 31st Ward offices a mile away for this antidrug rally, alderman Ray Suarez in the lead. Soon from the east comes a larger chanting contingent of block clubs, school bands in uniform, church groups carrying banners. They have come from the 26th Ward offices behind a contingent of leaders including Gutierrez, Berrios, and del Valle. The two groups, almost 1,000 people, merge and mingle. Though the mood is upbeat, this is no fiesta. The message delivered over loudspeakers by the political leaders and echoed by state's attorney Jack O'Malley is sobering: this community is in deep trouble, people are afraid to walk in their neighborhoods or play in their parks, the drug traffic is pervasive, the only solution is to "take back the streets." There are cheers and applause, but even before the speeches end the crowd is drifting off, their balloons trailing behind. The problems are so overwhelming, the solutions so elusive.

According to the 1990 census, there are some 500,000 Hispanics in Chicago, one of the largest concentrations of Hispanics in the U.S. They make up almost 20 percent of the city's population--a substantial jump from 1980, when they made up only 14 percent. During the same ten years both the black and white populations showed a marked decrease. Indeed, one of the reasons the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts as well as city aldermanic wards must be redrawn is that, in their present configurations, some no longer have enough people to merit a representative.

But as the numbers of Hispanics have gone up, the quality of their lives has gone down. A recent study by University of Chicago sociologist Marta Tienda states that Puerto Ricans in particular are developing the characteristics of an underclass. "This minority group fared worse than blacks in the 1980s," she writes, "a reversal of the situation prevailing during the 1990s." An extensive 1988 study by the Chicago Reporter of four census tracts in the East Humboldt Park neighborhood (near North and California) revealed a 68 percent rise in poverty between 1970 and 1980, a 78 percent rise in serious assaults, and a 61 percent hike in robberies and burglaries. The median family income--$10,872--was among the lowest in the city, and 40 percent of families were headed by a single parent.

Among the most telling statistics provided by the Reporter was that 73 percent of the class of 1983 at Roberto Clemente High School, which serves much of that neighborhood, had dropped out. Though the dropout rate leveled off at about 50 percent in subsequent years, more than half of those who graduated were performing well below grade level. It is hardly a surprise then that between 1980 and 1986 Hispanic enrollment in public universities in Chicago plummeted by more than 10 percent; many high school graduates would not be able to pull their weight in higher education and they knew it.

In October 1986, less than a month before he was elected to the Illinois senate, Miguel del Valle attended a community meeting at Clemente. He heard University of Illinois at Chicago officials explain the new, tougher entrance requirements approved by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and he heard the audience of more than 1,000 groan. They recognized that tough entrance measures would only exclude more minorities, because the city's public schools weren't offering the courses needed to meet the requirements. The meeting eventually got out of hand when the crowd began chanting "Open the doors, U. of I.!"

One of del Valle's early moves in Springfield was sponsoring a resolution to establish a joint legislative committee on minority access to higher education. The resolution passed and del Valle and state representative Ellis Levin got themselves appointed cochairs of the committee. "I was brand-new in the legislature," says del Valle. "I wasn't on the senate education committee, but I wanted to be at the table when the decisions were made."

The result of that committee's work, which included public hearings around the state, was a 207-page report released in 1989 titled "Open the Door." It roundly criticized the Board of Higher Education for demanding performance standards that high schools and junior colleges were in no position to deliver, called for a new partnership among all branches of education, and issued a barrage of recommendations. "We're not saying keep standards forever low," says del Valle. "We're saying give the students the tools to meet the standards."

Largely through del Valle's pushing, some of the recommendations have become realities, including improved reporting on chronic-truancy rates at all high schools, funding for dropout prevention, and the appropriation of $2.2 million this year to fund minority-transfer centers at community colleges that would help students make the transition to four-year colleges and universities. The report even affected Governor Edgar's first budget proposal, which allocated more funds for programs to halt the hemorrhaging of students from schools.

Del Valle insists this report, unlike many churned out by legislative committees, is not destined for a dusty spot on the shelf. "This is a blueprint document--these issues will be addressed!" He recently proposed that the University of Illinois earmark 10 percent of the gross revenues from its athletic programs for minority admission and retention. He says he only meant to send a message and didn't expect school officials to jump at the idea. They didn't.

To address the problem of public elementary and high schools that don't educate, del Valle became one of the most vocal leaders on school reform in Chicago. He was senate sponsor of the bill proposed by CURE (Chicagoans United to Reform Education) that evolved into the legislation that is overhauling the Chicago system. And he was part of the joint legislative committee that worked out the compromise bill--another instance of his determination to "sit at the table." The new local school and district councils, with their authority over principals and other matters, are the most visible result of the reform package. But del Valle also notes that schools are now required to include the kinds of courses that prepare students for college.

Del Valle also developed and sponsored the legislation that led to a crackdown on private barber, cosmetology, and business schools that were notorious for ripping off minorities; the new law calls for regular inspection of facilities, grievance procedures for students, and penalties for schools that fail to retain at least 50 percent of enrollees.

Though education is his passion, del Valle is also chairman of the Senate Committee on Consumer Affairs and has a long, eclectic list of concerns.

His bill increasing the number of residential centers for people with AIDS was passed by the legislature and awaits the governor's signature. He also introduced successful legislation calling for AIDS testing of prison inmates who have a history of intravenous drug use.

Now on the books is a law he proposed authorizing a $50 fine for motorists who play loud car stereos. Block-club members in his district had urged him to muffle the "boom cars."

He sponsored the bill that controls credit-service companies offering to fix consumers' bad ratings, which includes criminal penalties for those who prey on the unwary.

He has also pressed for affordable housing, more lead-poisoning screening, sanctions against employers who discriminate against Hispanic job seekers, and higher pay for state employees who are bilingual.

Not all his efforts meet with success. He knew his bill demanding that the Illinois National Guard pull out of Central America several years ago would not go far, but says he wanted to make a statement about the "inordinately large number" of young servicemen and -women from his district shipped to El Salvador.

Del Valle is currently on a campaign (much opposed by police officials) to amend the law that gives Chicago police a multimillion-dollar share of assets seized in narcotics investigations. He wants 50 percent of the take to go to community groups to aid their grass-roots efforts against drug dealers.

During his first five years in the senate, del Valle received considerable guidance from his legislative aide, Roberto Rivera, who says he took a $20,000-a-year salary cut to work for the freshman senator. "I just refused to allow him to walk into that lion's den alone," says the voluble Rivera, who had been director of the city's antigang program. "I was one of two or three Hispanics who knew the general assembly. A lot of his colleagues assumed his election was a fluke, but I believed he could make a difference. This is a man who refuses to be part of the old boys' network."

Representative Ellis Levin, del Valle's cochairman on the minority education committee, praises del Valle's ability to recruit capable people like Rivera to run interference or to wheel and deal behind the scenes. And he vigorously denies Berrios's contention that del Valle was not a very effective legislator. "Here's a guy who can get things done," Levin says. "Look at the record. He's basically an intellectual, but he can be very practical too."

On a bulletin board next to his desk in his district office, del Valle has pinned a selection of inspirational sayings torn from his daily calendar: "He who sacrifices his conscience to ambition burns a picture to obtain ashes." "Don't compromise yourself; you're all you've got!" He admits that he sometimes needs a jolt to make him take the next step.

He was five years old when he arrived at O'Hare Airport with his mother and two brothers. He still remembers "like it was yesterday" his grandfather crying and hugging him before the family left Puerto Rico. He remembers the long flight to Chicago and his mother trying to make herself understood at the airport. Most of all, he remembers the urinals in the public bathroom, the first indoor plumbing he had ever seen. Del Valle's father, also named Miguel, had come to the United States the year before and had earned enough as a dishwasher to bring his family here. But like many Puerto Rican emigres, he did not intend to remain permanently, only long enough to make enough to return to his native land and buy a house.

Life was not easy. Del Valle's father held a succession of low-paying jobs, mostly in factories, and the family moved from one small apartment to another on the near north side--"every time the rent went up," says del Valle. It's clear that his father was a powerful, formative influence. "My father was a good provider and worked even when he was sick," del Valle says. "He always shopped at little neighborhood stores because they would give us credit. He got nervous if he ever missed a payment. One time he even borrowed money to meet a payment when he had been laid off from work."

On weekends his father, dressed in a white shirt and tie and one of the second-hand silk suits he bought on Maxwell Street, would take his family to church or to visit friends. Del Valle remembers that when he was ten, his father bought his first car: a used late-50s Chevy with big rear fender fins. "We kids had to wash it every week, inside and out. He taught us respect and responsibility, and stressed the importance of education. He always said, 'Be a professional. Make something of yourself.'" Del Valle also recalls his father's mostly frustrating efforts to master a new language, and the memory is so strong it brings tears to his eyes. "He would come home from work dog tired and then in the evening go to Association House, a settlement house founded by Jane Addams, to take his English class--a proud man."

The young del Valle's education was a roller-coaster affair. After the crushing disappointment of first grade, his parents sent him to public schools that had bilingual programs. He was finally inspired by a third-grade teacher--he won prizes, skipped a grade, and even went to summer school "just for fun." He was doing so well by eighth grade that he was accepted at the prestigious Lane Tech. But after a year and a half he transferred to Tuley (now Clemente). "I wasn't a serious student," he says. "I goofed off a lot."

His main claim to fame at Tuley was leading a student-organized walkout to protest sexism and racism on the part of a history teacher. He says the man often pinched Latino girls and called them "Chiquita bananas." Little came of the walkout, but del Valle had gotten a taste of organized community action, and he liked it.

In 1969, just after del Valle graduated from high school, his father announced that he had saved enough for the whole family to return to Puerto Rico and buy a home. The 18-year-old son dutifully went along, enrolling at the University of Puerto Rico, where he was granted a full scholarship. But he was homesick for Chicago, his old buddies, and his girlfriend. And, like many others who had grown up in the States, he was disparaged as a "New Yorican" (New York is the major port of entry for Puerto Ricans) and treated like a second-class citizen by fellow students. After two months del Valle returned to Chicago, and he has been here ever since. (His parents later divorced in Puerto Rico, where his father remained.)

At first he lived with a friend and got a factory job pounding transformer parts into shape. Then he did spray painting at a sign company that had little ventilation. "I saw how hard people worked and how they were exploited," he says, especially the Mexican artisans who produced intricate designs for near poverty wages. "I said to myself, do I want to do things like this for the rest of my life?" He ran into Max Torres, a Neighborhood Youth Corps supervisor for whom he had worked in high school. "He sat me down. 'Look, you've got a good head on your shoulders. Why aren't you in college?'"

That was the push del Valle needed. He applied to Northeastern and, to his surprise, was accepted. While working toward a bachelor's degree in education, he organized another protest--this one about the low number of Hispanic students at the university. He was later named to the committee recommending candidates for a newly formed Hispanic recruitment office at the school and helped secure the job for Torres, who continues to be the major force in Hispanic recruitment at the university.

At 19, del Valle married Lupe, then managed to get a work-study job at the Baretto Boys Club in the West Town neighborhood. The director, Al Mackin, of the Saul Alinsky school, got him out on the streets. "I was allowed to grow up, to learn from my mistakes," del Valle says. After graduating in 1974, del Valle became the full-time director of the boys' club. It flourished during his five years at the helm, thanks in part to funds from the Union League Foundation for Boys' Clubs. For example, before it was renovated the gym had such a low ceiling that Baretto basketball players had been coached to attempt only line-drive shots--which put them at some disadvantage when playing on opponents' courts. It was at Baretto that del Valle says he formed his basic philosophy: "Never judge a book by the cover. You don't know how a kid is going to turn out, so you treat everybody the same."

Del Valle was noticed by the director of Association House, David Sanchez, who invited him to join his staff in 1979. "I saw him as somebody who wasn't just holding down a job," says Sanchez. "He wanted to change the community. He had this knack for talking to kids, and they'd listen."

Del Valle felt guilty about abandoning the kids at Baretto. Still, Association House was the place where his father studied English and where his wife got free prenatal care for their first baby. He took the job. One year later Sanchez resigned and recommended del Valle, only 29 at the time, as his successor. The board approved. "I was scared," says del Valle, "moving from a boys' club to an operation with a $1.5 million budget, 70 employees, and an awful lot of outreach."

But unlike some grass-roots organizers who flounder in executive posts, del Valle flourished. During his four years as director many new programs were added and the budget soared to $4 million. Del Valle knew the neighborhood, and the neighborhood knew him, recalls Sanchez, now doing a second stint as director at the settlement house. "He always had an ear to the ground."

Only recently have Chicago's Hispanics become politically sophisticated. In 1983 the city's first Hispanic alderman, Miguel Santiago, called a press conference to level criminal charges against a local activist he claimed had threatened to set him on fire. As questioning proceeded, it became clear that the activist had actually said the community would evaluate Santiago's performance and intended to "hold his feet to the fire."

For most Puerto Ricans politics had always been somebody else's game, and a confusing one at that. Del Valle too had stayed "as far away as possible." He remembers going with a community delegation to see Tom Keane, the legendary 31st Ward alderman and Democratic committeeman, about using some city-owned vacant lots for recreation purposes, only to be turned off by Keane's put-down. "I sincerely believed you couldn't beat City Hall, and there was no use trying."

That belief was shaken a bit by Jane Byrne's mayoral crusade. "I voted for the first time in my life in 1979, and I voted for her because I admired her courage," he says, laughing. "I knew she couldn't win." But she did win, and del Valle began to view politics and politicians with a less jaundiced eye (though he admits his enthusiasm for Byrne quickly cooled).

One night in 1982 Harold Washington attended a community rally to save West Town's Sabin School, which the Board of Education was threatening to sell to a housing developer. Washington's charismatic persona gripped del Valle even as it gripped another young Puerto Rican he met for the first time on that occasion, Luis Gutierrez. "On election night in 1983 I stayed up all night hoping but not believing," says del Valle. "I was simply stunned when Harold won."

Washington named del Valle, along with the heads of other Hispanic community groups, to the new Mayor's Commission on Latino Affairs, and for three years del Valle served as its chairman. By all accounts the meetings were often tumultuous. Committee members accused Washington of foot-dragging on pledges to their community ("They gave him a grade of D on Hispanic executive hiring"), and Washington defended himself with characteristic vigor. On more than one occasion he accused del Valle of grandstanding. But progress came. "We were honest with him, and he with us. He was willing to listen, to learn--and you've got to respect that."

Washington's first term was of course bedeviled by the 29-to-21 City Council deadlock that left the mayor (and the city) in a state of chronic frustration. Thanks in part to newly drawn ward boundaries--the result of a federal lawsuit in which del Valle was a principal plaintiff--the Washington forces hoped to gain control of the council in the 1986 special elections. Del Valle was asked to run for alderman in the 31st Ward against Santiago, a protege of Ed Vrdolyak and a solid member of the 29. He declined, preferring to oppose the man he thought really ran the 31st Ward, Ed Nedza, state senator for the Fifth District and political successor to Tom Keane. "From my work at Association House I knew a lot more about state government than city government. I thought I could be more effective in the legislature. And I wanted to do what I could to further the Washington agenda."

He resigned from Association House, plunked down $300 to start his "war chest," and started ringing doorbells. He was not taken seriously by the regular Democrats. He had never worked a precinct in his life and had no political organization. Although the Fifth District was about 60 percent Hispanic, the majority of registered voters were white. Nedza assumed all was well and declined invitations to debate. In addition, the media lavished practically all of its attention on the 26th Ward, where Gutierrez, the Washington long-shot candidate, was running against Manuel Torres, another Vrdolyak minion. As election day grew near, it appeared likely that Washington's chances of overcoming the obstructionists depended on a Gutierrez win. Without the 26th Ward Washington would at best have only 24 wards, while Vrdolyak controlled 26; a Gutierrez victory would mean a 25-25 tie, giving the mayor an automatic deciding vote.

But del Valle had been amassing support for his own primary race. He had worked in the West Town community for 12 years. "Every organization and business knew me, and I knew someone personally on every block." His message to voters was clear: we've got to control the dropout problem, improve health and welfare benefits, curb crime, and stifle machine politics. His campaign was covered not in the major media but in local Spanish newspapers and on Spanish television. "I'm always cautious," he says. "I was ready to lose." Even after 400 volunteer poll watchers showed up at his headquarters for training a week before the primary.

On election day del Valle won with some 54 percent of the vote. Yet he says he felt "empty and helpless. I had run for six months full-time, and I never saw my opponent or talked to him once. He never even conceded my win. It was like running against a phantom." Nor did the press give much attention to the state's first Hispanic senate candidate. All eyes were focused on the virtual tie in the 26th Ward, a tie quickly broken by Gutierrez in a runoff.

Del Valle still had another lap to go--with a Republican unknown in the November general election. He found the combat against Wayne Haney more stimulating, because they debated often and the press paid attention. When Governor Jim Thompson called a press conference to endorse Haney, a crowd of del Valle supporters marched in the glare of the cameras with signs reading, "Will the governor deprive this Hispanic district of the opportunity to elect its own?"

"I never worked so hard in my life," says del Valle. "I cashed in a $6,000 annuity I had. I worked about 25 hours a day for one whole year. My wife got a job because we had no other income."

In the election he beat Haney by a better than two-to-one margin, becoming Illinois' first Hispanic state senator. He was happy, Washington was happy, Gutierrez was happy. The future of independent, coalition-building politics never looked better. And then Harold Washington dropped dead.

The hurricane that hit Chicago politics in the post-Washington years didn't touch Springfield, as far as del Valle was concerned. "I really felt comfortable in the senate, not hemmed in or isolated. Maybe in the old days the Chicago legislators got marching orders from Mayor Daley, but I found the old organization strength diluted."

Even after the ascendency of Daley II, del Valle functioned with relative ease. "I have to be complimentary of Daley. He didn't try to act as a boss, not with me." So he worked on his legislative agenda and interacted cooperatively--he thought--with the regulars on dozens of projects. "I'm glad I didn't run for the City Council. I would have gone crazy with all that rancor, would have been a one-term alderman for sure."

If he was becoming too comfortable in his legislative advocacy role, del Valle got the kind of motivational jolt he needed last year when the regular Democratic organization tried to unseat him. The vehemence of that opposition still stings.

Del Valle had one strike against him. He had supported Tim Evans for mayor immediately after Washington's death, and he had come out strongly for Evans, the Harold Washington Party candidate, in the 1989 general mayoral election. It was a matter of principle, since he saw Evans as the logical heir of the reformist movement. So did three of the four Hispanic aldermen. The fourth, Gutierrez, surprised everyone by spurning Evans and endorsing Daley, further rending the tentative Hispanic-black coalition Washington had built.

In the course of the 1989 campaign del Valle and Gutierrez exchanged harsh words. Gutierrez recalls that during a joint appearance on John Callaway's television program, del Valle accused him of selling out to the smoother-talking and better-dressed but still basically corrupt Democratic machine. "I got angry," says Gutierrez. "He questioned my integrity. He said I was inconsistent."

Del Valle supporters further alienated the two by promoting Evans's candidacy with special enthusiasm right in Gutierrez's own ward. "Everything got ugly," Gutierrez says. "Getting even became more important than getting mad." He tried unsuccessfully to have del Valle removed as chair of the Illinois Hispanic Democratic Council, an organization del Valle himself had founded to encourage minority political involvement.

When the north-side Democratic leaders met at 32nd Ward Alderman Terry Gabinski's office to draw up the slate for the 1990 elections, Gutierrez was there to eloquently oppose any endorsement of del Valle. His argument--that the senator had deserted the party by favoring Evans--prevailed. By a four-to-three vote, the chieftains gave del Valle a thumbs-down. Del Valle was not especially alarmed at first. He hadn't run as a regular Democrat the first time, nor had he operated as one since. What stunned him as the campaign gained momentum was the size of the forces marshaled against him.

The powerful 32nd Ward organization of Alderman Gabinski and Democratic committeeman Dan Rostenkowski could have merely ignored his candidacy; instead its members swarmed through the Fifth District on behalf of a surprise candidate raised up by Gutierrez. All that was known about Nelida Smyser-DeLeon was that this part-time seller of toys and leader of a local block club had developed a sudden ambition for the Illinois senate. Meanwhile, the forces of Ed Nedza, who had been convicted on extortion charges and imprisoned during del Valle's first term, also reemerged to exact revenge. The district was inundated with literature touting DeLeon as the "loyal" Democrat. Hispanic television ads impugned del Valle's record. One showed a man sitting on a chair in a vacant lot reading a newspaper. This, said the announcer, is the site for the long-awaited Humboldt Park Vocational Center promised by Senator del Valle--where is it? Del Valle was furious, because he had fought for that center for more than eight years--at Association House and in the senate--and he had finally gotten a commitment of funds. And Gutierrez, also a supporter of the center, was fully aware of his long commitment to the project.

The somewhat disorganized, outmanned, and outfinanced del Valle forces fought back, spending far more than they had originally intended. Chris Giovannis, a del Valle poll watcher and president of a West Town cultural-arts organization, considers any report that the Democratic machine is crippled a "blatant lie." She says that when she got to her assigned polling place at 5 AM on election day, eight city workers from the 11th Ward were already in place: "Classic machine operatives with palm cards, all ready to intimidate voters. If we hadn't had an honest cop on the job there, we would have been dead meat that day!"

Del Valle won that precinct, he won Gutierrez's home precinct, and he carried the Fifth District too--but with just a tad over 50 percent of the votes. DeLeon got 42 percent, and a third candidate took 8. In the November general election del Valle won easily against a token, largely unsupported Republican. In retrospect, he says the organization taught him a memorable lesson: legislative achievement and community commitment do not guarantee success, not in an old-fashioned game of political hardball.

Joseph Berrios gloated afterward that the narrow victory showed how vulnerable del Valle is. Other observers read the results differently. Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett wrote, "Let the annals show that Hispanic dignity prevailed. It was a difficult battle but Sen. del Valle and the voters kept valor alive." Gutierrez declined to prolong the feud. The victory, he said, "speaks well for the man" and his strength among the voters.

Still puzzled about what really provoked the onslaught, del Valle is determined not to be so vulnerable next time. Earlier this month the first meeting of his Volunteer Political Organization was held. Like traditional Chicago political organizations, he says, it will have structure and a specific agenda. Unlike them, its members' allegiance will be to issues, not to individual politicians and certainly not to patronage jobs. Harold Washington's movement, del Valle believes, paid a dear price for failing to build such an ongoing grass-roots organization.

Gutierrez insists there will be no further attacks from his side. "You know who lost because of our fight? We both lost, and the community lost. There must have been a quarter of a million dollars spent in that campaign. If all that time and money had been brought against gangs and drugs, we could have made a dent." But he stops just short of an apology. "We're first-generation in this country, so we still carry some of the old-country values--honor, respect. When we feel like we're violated, we react. I assure you, we'll do better the next time."

Del Valle concurs. "There's growth on both sides, some political maturing." In early June, at a celebration of Puerto Rican friendship in the West Town community, both del Valle and Gutierrez received awards for their contributions. When they embraced on the stage, the crowd responded with loud prolonged cheering and applause. "It was not perfunctory," says Gutierrez.

"The people don't give a damn about our personal differences," adds del Valle. "What they know is that to the extent we battle one another, the real issues--education, housing, jobs--are being ignored. Somebody said to me, 'How could you stand next to him and embrace him after what he tried to do to you?' I said, 'I'm impressed with our unity. I feel good about it. It's more important that Hispanics stand together now than it's ever been.'"

Unity between Chicago's two predominant Hispanic populations, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, has been a long-unrealized dream. But it's going to happen, at least on paper. A three-judge panel in the federal court in Chicago is currently finishing a legislative map that creates a new congressional district joining the heavily Mexican Pilsen and Little Village areas on the south side with the Puerto Rican West Town, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square areas on the north. The district is a product of the 1982 amendment to the Voting Rights Act, which says that a minority voting district must be created whenever that minority has sufficient numbers to merit a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Chicago's half a million Hispanics clearly constitute such a minority, but putting them together has required a liberal reading of the law (districts are supposed to be "compact" and "contiguous" and a lot of negotiating--with blacks, for instance, who had their own interests to protect, and with powerful incumbent congressmen such as Dan Rostenkowski, who stood to lose a large part of his northwest-side fiefdom.

Despite occasional (and usually private) flare-ups, the map-drawing process proceeded with surprising civility. Del Valle, very involved in the process from the start, sees the new congressional union of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans as a reflection of a gradual intra-Hispanic maturing process. "We've come a long way in the last decade," he says. "We both see the importance of cooperation. Besides, our cultures are so similar we never should have had all these difficulties." He's speaking from personal experience, since his wife is a Mexican-American--a fact he often mentions in public.

Jesus Garcia, alderman of the 22nd Ward in the Little Village area and a Mexican American who's married to a Puerto Rican, calls del Valle "one of the most effective and respected Latinos in the state" and agrees that the Latin American gap in Chicago is shrinking. "What draws us together besides our culture is our common concern about the education, health, and employment problems dogging our people," says Garcia.

The future of Hispanic coalition politics will depend on the kind of representative the newly formed district elects. In addition to Gutierrez, possible contenders include Miriam Santos, the Chicago city treasurer, and Joseph Berrios, now a member of the Cook County Board of Appeals. As a U.S. representative, either of the latter would provide a close, predictable relationship with the Chicago Democratic organization. Gutierrez would be less predictable.

When asked about his intentions, del Valle takes a deep breath and looks troubled. "I'm strongly leaning against running for Congress," he says, citing family considerations, the fact that he would have to resign from the Illinois senate and lose the legislative foundation he's been trying to build, the absence of major funding, and the lack of a tightly knit organization backing him. "I'm never going to run for anything just to stop someone else," he says. "Only to develop a cause."

Just getting re-elected to his senate seat in 1992, he adds, may sap all the energy of his new volunteer organization, especially if the big guns come after him again. Better to proceed slowly, keep learning, and promote the cause ahead of personal ambition. Last week he formally announced his candidacy for re-election to the state senate.

Maria de los Angeles Torres, the executive director of the Mayor's Commission on Latino Affairs during the Washington years and now a political-science professor at DePaul University, is intrigued by del Valle's character and his long-term political prospects. "We are in a country that's supposed to show the world what democracy means," she says, "yet we are among the lowest of the developed nations in voter registration and in voter turnout. Apathy is rampant. What gets people energized, I believe, are candidates who will buck the system, who won't sell out legally or illegally. They may not be able to deliver the same kind of goods as the party loyalist. But they are able to galvanize interest, create pride and dignity, enable people to gain some control over their own destiny."

Miguel del Valle, she says, is a consensus builder rooted in the community yet able to move beyond it, the kind of rare person who just might chart a path for Latinos in big-city politics, maybe even unite the disparate racial and ethnic groups squabbling among themselves and cursing their own impotence. It's a very tentative hope, she acknowledges, based on dozens of unforeseeable contingencies.

Del Valle refuses to indulge in any speculation. If there's anything he's learned, he says, it's the futility of long-term plans. "I run scared," he says. "I have in the past, and I think I always will."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.

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